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Sunday, Aug. 7, 2011

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Work in progress: "I'm sure people will think it is about the earthquake and everything that has happened," graphic-designer-turned-artist Tadanori Yokoo said of this dark urban landscape he was painting at his studio in Tokyo last month. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

CLOSE-UP: Tadanori Yokoo

An artist by design

For Tadanori Yokoo, there was one precise moment when he switched from graphic to fine art


Staff writer

In conversation, Tadanori Yokoo jumps nimbly between the past and the present. One moment he's watching the sky glow red as bombs rain down on Kobe during World War II. The next he's riding in a taxi with Yukio Mishima. And then he's back in the present again, here at his studio in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward, discussing his latest painting.

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Yokoo's 1965 silkscreen-on-paper work "TADANORI YOKOO"

It has always been that way for this 75-year-old who, in the 1960s, became Japan's most famous graphic designer before abruptly deciding, in 1981, to become a painter. Not only his conversation but everything he has produced to date — his graphic-art posters, his fine-art paintings — draws on his memories.

Yokoo was born in 1936 in Nishiwaki, Hyogo Prefecture, and was adopted by relatives — a doting elderly couple who had run a kimono fabric-making company.

A keen drawer as a child, Yokoo — despite having no formal training — gravitated naturally toward graphic design.

After marrying young, at age 21 — he now has two grown-up children who are both active in the arts — Yokoo moved en famille to Tokyo in 1960, just as the city was in the midst of violent student riots against the Japan-U.S. Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, which had been signed that January.

There, he eventually made his mark by pushing in the opposite direction away from Modernism, which was then the dominant design trend.

Instead of following Modernism's mantra of simplicity and function-over-form, Yokoo introduced into his commercial posters and advertising graphic elements from his childhood: His text was reminiscent of the old kimono fabric labels of his childhood; his graphics were influenced by children's card games from the prewar period.

Yokoo's original approach won him fans in Japan's avant-garde circles — the locale of creators such as the filmmaker Nagisa Oshima, the butoh dancer Tatsumi Hijikata and the playwright Shuji Terayama, for whom he made posters for theatrical productions.

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"Jules Verne's Sea," an acrylic-and-collage image on canvas from 2006

He also gained a following overseas — being feted with a solo exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1972. It was the first time that a living graphic designer had been given a solo exhibition at the hallowed institution.

A decade later, Yokoo surprised his fans by switching his focus away from graphic design. In what became known as his "painter declaration," he announced that he would henceforth become a fine artist — a painter.

He didn't stop doing design work completely, but since then he has spent much of his time in front of his canvases — mainly at his Tokyo studio.

Yokoo's approach to painting is a kind of wrestling engagement with his own life experiences. Colors occur to him, vague scenes — a crossroads, or roads diverging at a Y-intersection — and as he starts painting from that vision, he begins to recognize memories and emotions from deep in his past.

Yokoo is one of the stars at this year's Yokohama Triennale, the giant multi-venue, three-month art event that kicked off in the port city on Aug. 6.

He was busy applying the finishing touches to his exhibits when The Japan Times visited him at his studio late last month — but was nonetheless happy to take time out to make a conversational dive into his fascinating past.

What is your first memory of art?

For as long as I can remember I enjoyed drawing, particularly making copies of existing images.

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Yokoo at age 4, pictured in a studio in his native Nishiwaki, Hyogo Prefecture.

What kinds of images?

Mostly pictures in children's books. I had a lot of picture books and they had illustrations of historical characters like the warrior Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645). I enjoyed copying those.

When did you start shifting from making drawings as copies to making drawings from your imagination?

As a child, I never did. For me, drawing was copying. Back then, I never intended to become an artist myself.

But you ended up choosing the path of graphic design, which is close to art. How did that happen?

Well, I needed to make a living. I was actually adopted by the Yokoo family and my adoptive mother and father were already quite old. I needed to generate income, so I started working straight after high school — first at a printing company, then at the Kobe Shimbun newspaper and then at an advertising agency.

Were you doing design work at those companies?

That's right. I just learned on the job.

Eventually you decided to go to Tokyo. Why did you make that move?

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"Moat," Yokoo's 1966 acrylic-on-canvas picture of a woman swimming in the Imperial Palace moat in Tokyo

Well, the reaction I got to my design work was good, so I kept it up. I came to Tokyo with the advertising agency in 1960, and shortly afterward I moved to a dedicated design company.

In what way was the reaction to your work good?

Well I entered my designs in exhibitions and they won prizes. And then I gradually realized that this might be a good job to do. And then I came to Tokyo and at the time what lay behind everything that was being done was this idea of "modern design."

Do you mean the very simple, function-over-form style of design, where all decorative elements were excised?

Yes. I had a very strong yearning for this modern design, but at the same time I had been raised in a kind of premodern age — a nativist kind of climate, where the old ways remained in place. So for me, in order to enter this world of modern design, there were many things inside me that I had to discard.

But at the same time, I had this lingering doubt about whether I really should be doing something simply as a job or if I should try to do it as a work of art. You know, it's all very well to be in sync with the trends of the day, but is there something of yourself being expressed in the design? Is it really your own design or not?

So then I went through this process of thinking that I should try to incorporate those premodern or nativist elements into modern design. And it was from that point that what is really my own design was born.

What kind of old-style, decorative elements were you bringing into your work?

My adoptive father had been a kimono-fabric wholesaler when he was still working. So in our house there were lots of the labels that they would put on the fabrics when they sold them, and those labels had wonderful designs — designs that blended Western and Japanese motifs. They were sort of slightly tacky, mysterious. I guess now you would call them "kitsch."

There were also cards for menko (a children's game in which wooden cards are slapped down in order to overturn an opponent's cards), and those cards had pictures of samurai and film stars and sports stars.

Those kinds of things formed the visual language with which I was surrounded. I tried to bring all of that baggage into the framework of Modernism.

How was your work viewed in the design community? The company you joined, Nippon Design Center, was run by a leading figure in Japanese Modernist design, Ikko Tanaka (1930-2002), and you had deliberately sought out that company. How did Tanaka and the others there react to your work?

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